Notes for a presentation to a symposium on the ‘Divine Presence’ at the Worship Centre, Murdoch University, Perth on Thursday, 2 October 2014 with Harold Ellens, Gregory C. Jenks, Alex Jensen, and Suzanne Boorer
It is good to be back in Perth as a guest of the WA Progressive Network, and I am especially pleased to have been invited to participate in this conversation.
As we begin, allow me to bring greetings not only from my immediate academic community at St Francis College in Brisbane, but also from the Christian communities in Haifa and Nazareth where I have close connections. This is a difficult time for Christians in the Middle East, including Palestine and Israel, and I know they value our prayers and our solidarity.
It is important to clarify at the start that I come to this conversation as a biblical scholar, and not as a theologian or mystic. My professional focus is on the texts, the communities that formed them, and the communities that now read them. I am not all that interested in the God question, nor in religious experience. I do not doubt the reality of either, it is just that I find other questions more pressing.
On the other hand, I am deeply interested in what it means to be human and how to live a life that is “holy and true”, by which I mean “authentic and with some spiritual depth”. As a Christian myself, Jesus plays a significant part in all this for me, so I hope I may have something to offer to our conversation about the ‘divine presence’ this evening.
My contribution is therefore shaped by and derives mostly from one sphere of intellectual inquiry, and within that already limited domain of biblical studies I will restrict myself to Jesus.
Further, even when considering Jesus and the encounter with the divine, I will avoid speaking about the experience(s) of the divine that Jesus may have had. In other words, I am not so much interested in the religious experience of Jesus as I am interested in the role of Jesus within our own (or at least my own) religious experience.
Jesus and the encounter with God
Recently I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book on the “God Encounter” being edited by Nigel Leaves. A number of us were asked to choose some topic or figure (prayer, Jesus, the Bible, etc) and write about how that connected with our encounter with God. Having just finished a book on Jesus I naturally thought of that option for my chapter, but imagined it would have been already taken by someone else — if not Nigel himself, who teaches the Christology class for us at SFC!
To my surprise and delight, no one else was bidding for Jesus. The topic was mine! That still strikes me as a bit strange, but I was very happy to undertake the assignment.
My chapter was eventually entitled, “Encountering God in Jesus of Nazareth”, and I will draw on some of the material in that essay as we start the conversation, although taking some things in a different direction as I never find any form of words a satisfactory statement about God or Jesus, including my own.
God was in Christ …
For millions of Christians the primary and quintessential way that Jesus impacts their experience of the divine presence is his presumed divinity as an incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. To see (know) Jesus is to see/know God. John 14:9 comes to mind: “… to see me is to see the Father.”
This idea is implicit in one of my favourite descriptions of Jesus: “the human face of God”.
To express it more discursively perhaps, millions of people throughout the last 2,000 years including hundreds of millions of people alive on the planet right now, are devoted to Jesus as a divine figure. They worship him, they seek to serve him, they anticipate his direct involvement in the smallest details of their everyday lives, they experience their own lives as being in a relationship with Jesus, and they understand the future of the world — as well as their own destiny at and after death — to be in his hands.
This “Jesus” – if indeed it is Jesus with whom they are engaged – is not the historical figure of first century Palestine but a divine saviour fashioned in the religious experience and the theological imagination of the early Christian movement. Many NT scholars would refer to this figure as the “Christ of faith”, although Luke Timothy Johnson might prefer to argue that this is the “real Jesus”. Marcus Borg famously speaks of “Jesus before Easter” and “Jesus after Easter”, and I wish to take my lead from that distinction.
The human face of God …
What Jesus has become after Easter in the imagination and practice of Christianity is not the topic I want to raise in this forum. Rather, I would like to focus on the contribution of the historical Jesus to our experience of the divine.
Again, to express this in slightly different terms, what does it mean that the distinctively Christian understanding of God is centred on the figure of a Jewish man from Galilee? His human experience, his actions, his teachings, his fate lie at the very centre of the Christian understanding of God, and that God is present here among us as one of us. The Christian God is neither an abstract idea nor a remote spiritual power.
How does “Jesus before Easter” impact on our experience of the divine? In what realistic sense can we speak of that Jesus as the “human face of God”?
For me there is a cluster of themes that are highly significant in this regard:
- The humanity of Jesus
- The historical particularity of Jesus
- The character of Jesus (compassion, integrity, vulnerability)
- The wisdom and wit of Jesus
- The community of practice
The humanity of Jesus
The phrase “son of Man” is one of the most evocative titles for Jesus. There are good reasons for thinking it reflects his own choice of self-description, and it is interesting to note that it means simply, “the human one”.
If we take this idea seriously, Jesus matters most deeply because of his humanity.
Jesus took his humanity seriously. He accepted that it defined him, and he did not seek divinity. Jesus lived within the constraints of creature-hood.
It seems to me that the church loves to talk abut God, but the world needs to hear us speak about being human. Reframing our God-talk in terms of Emmanuel discourse may be our most urgent mission for the sake of the world. We do not need to learn how to become gods, but we do need to learn how to live as humans.
If we take the humanity of Jesus more seriously, perhaps we can reclaim some ancient truths about the Christian experience of God-with-us.
The historical particularity of Jesus
Jesus was not a generic human, an abstract man (sic). Rather, he was (like each of us) a person of a particular time and place.
Taking the humanity of Jesus seriously means that we notice his ethnicity, his religion, his economic status, and his political situation. If such categories seem odd for a discussion of Jesus it may well be an indication of just how little significance we have attributed to the humanity of Jesus.
Some key aspects of Jesus would include:
- small town
- third world (cf MDGs)
Are these only attributes of Jesus? Are they not also attributes of the Christian God? And if so, in what sense? And to what extent are they attributes of us? Have we become estranged from our place, from our people, from our village, from our planet? Do we consider ourselves indispensable?
The character of Jesus
It seems to me that we admire most about Jesus are his human qualities, not his supposedly divine attributes. Divine attributes seem to be like stainless steel: cold and hard, untarnished, dead.
On the other hand, the attributes of Jesus that we most appreciate would include:
Like Abraham, it is the faithfulness of Jesus to God’s call on him that saves others. At least, so Paul would have us think in Romans 3 and 4.
The Jesus we knew before Easter continues to be a significant prophetic figure with much to say to us today, and it is as a prophet that Jesus is honoured within Islam. The faithful humanity of Jesus is itself a prophetic act that cuts across the centuries and invites us to get ready for the coming reign of God. Jesus speaks for God, and he does not always need to use words. Often it is sufficient for us to note how Jesus treated people. We find ourselves in the presence of God. That presence has a missional dimension; it compels us to action to bring the future possibilities into present reality.
The wisdom and wit of Jesus
The teachings of Jesus continue to challenge and liberate, even if the church continues to evade them. These sayings are mostly secular. Very few of them speak directly about God or deal with religious topics, even if – ultimately – they concern the elusive kingdom of God.
The words of Jesus rarely focus on “sin” (except perhaps in the Gospel of John, but there is not much left of the voice of Jesus in that document). Rather than turning the spotlight of divine wrath on a sinful audience, these words are invitations to see, to reimagine, and to turn towards the future.
How does this reflect the nature of the divine presence as understood by Christians? Is God primarily concerned with “holiness” and “purity”, or with life and “becoming”?
The community of practice
From birth to death Jesus lived in the presence of others. There was no splendid isolation for this human face of the eternal God. That tells me something abut the social nature of the Christian god, and invites me to escape the caricatures of androids on steroids, existing in eternal divine isolation far from the messiness of the life they are presumed to have created.
In between that communal birthing and dying we have the public years that leave no mark on the creeds and confessions of Constantine’s church. The hallmark of those years was that Jesus gathered a community of people around him. Our God is a gregarious god. God’s preferred company is comprised of the broken and the misfits, the blind and the lame, the poor and the outcasts, vulnerable widows and haemorrhaging women, parents with sick children, collaborators, and women with reputations. Cast the first stone, our God says, if you have no sin! Come as you are. Come and eat at my table.
Come to the table
Let me finish with that image of the table of life. It is prepared by God and placed in our midst. The table is open for us to come and enjoy.
That table is the sign of the divine presence, yet we have argued over the ontological status of the bread and wine. And all the while we have overlooked the human faces of God gathered around the table.
This Christian God has a human face. This God is not just compassionate, but suffers and dies and rises again. This God knows what it is like be alone, cold, hungry, loved, mocked, and touched. This God sets a table and calls us to eat. This God overturns the crass transactions at the centre of our lives and challenges us to become houses of prayer for all nations. This God has become the Spirit poured out on all flesh, so that Paul could also say, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17).